It was a beautiful clear day and just perfect for a kayaking trip to enjoy the wildlife and scenery of Elkhorn Slough off of Monterey Bay. Because it was our day off, my brother and I weren’t necessarily if a rush to get to the spot to launch our boats, but I wanted to get our kayaks into the water while the tide was in our favor. If things went on schedule we would be paddling under the Highway 1 overpass with its large and numerous pylons at slack tide which would make our cruise into the Slough easy. The plan was then to paddle for most of the morning and then later as the tide turned we would ride the current back to the marina. A good plan that would net us some up close and personal time with egrets, great blue herons, seals, jelly fish, and possibly a sighting of those adorable sea otters.
After loading the boats onto my van I drove to pick up my brother in some 30 miles south. I left about 10 mins behind my schedule and traffic was a little heavier than I expected so I arrived at his place about 30 minutes behind my plan. I was experienced in sea kayaking and this would have been my fifth time on Elkhorn; however, my brother was new to sea kayaking. He is an avid swimmer, but paddling was not his sport. He was excited about getting out on the water and we talked for awhile about what to wear and bring with him for the day. He spent some time combing the house for the right stuff, packed some lunch, sunscreen, water, and the other gear to make the outing most enjoyable.
Soon we were back in the van and heading south, although we were now a good hour behind the programmed time. No problem, I thought we just will start paddling as the tide starts to ebb out of the Slough back into the open sea. We will just have a slightly harder paddle into the Slough as we will be paddling against a building current.
We arrived at the put in spot near the marina and the parking lot was deserted. We were going to have the whole place to ourselves! We unloaded the boats and gathered all the neccessities, and I realized I would need to give my brother a quick lesson on safety and self rescuing technique as he was a newbie. This is critical as the waters in Northern California are cold and a calm casual paddle can quickly become life threatening, if you capsize and are in the water for a prolonged time. Better safe than sorry, we practiced the technique for righting the boat, blowing up the paddle float and using it for getting back in the boat.
After practice session we grab our gear and put our boats in the water. It takes a little while to get adjusted and start paddling out of the marina. Once we round the bend and enter the main channel that heads from the Slough out to the open Pacific, we discover that the current is a lot stronger than we expected and that we’re going to have to briefly paddle hard upstream underneath the bridge to get to the Slough, where we plan on spending a leisurely day checking out the wildlife. Since I know the way, I paddle ahead of my brother and paddle straight through between the large concrete pillars that hold up the highway bridge. This is the only real dangerous part of our paddling trip for the day, and it’s imperative that you get straight through the bridge without running into the pillars. The reason for this is the current is strong and if it pushes you into the pillar you get can stuck, capsize and get pinned against the pillar. I very dangerous situation that can lead to drowning.
After I paddle through the bridge, I turn around and backpaddle against the current to guide my brother through the pillars under the bridge. After he starts paddling through I noticed that his bow begins to veer and as soon as it moves off a straight line the current catches it and quickly pushes his boat directly against a pillar! The current so strong the boat immediately capsizes and my brother goes under!
I quickly paddle to his position to free his boat from the pillar and thankfully seconds later his head pops up. He’s a good swimmer, but we are in at six knot current and I yell to him to grab the boat with one hand and grab his paddle with the other. The good news is he is holding onto his boat and he still has his paddle, the bad news is he’s in the middle of the channel heading straight out to the open Pacific! The challenge now is to quickly get him back into his boat and to move out of the fast-moving current before he actually reaches open waters of the Pacific!
While I’m trying to assess our best chances for success, I am stunned to see another kayaker close by and paddling towards us, offering his help. It’s clear this kayaker knows what he’s doing and he quickly pulls up to help stabilize my brother’s kayak between our two boats, so that my brother can use the technique he learned minutes earlier to climb back into the narrow cockpit. The paddler stays in this position until my brother is able to get back into the kayak and begin paddling towards the side of the channel and out of the swift moving current.
Once we are stabilized and out of danger, the mysterious paddler bids us goodbye and we thank him profusely for his quick and crucial assistance. We never saw him again the rest of the day, and we were never quite sure where he came from, but he showed up at the crucial moment, took action, and miraculously kept us from facing a true disaster that day. We will never forget how much he helped us that day.